If you prioritise low weight and direct trail feel, there is no substitute for a hardtail. Foregoing rear suspension increases pedalling efficiency and reduces mechanical complexity.
For riders who are committed winter mountain bikers, repeated pivot bearing replacements after a muddy season’s off-road cycling can be annoying and expensive. With a hardtail, that is never an issue.
Mountain bikes without rear suspension are also, by implication, lighter and transfer a rider’s power output better when climbing or cadencing along on a flat trail or jeep track. Those mountain bikers who enjoy riding manicured singletrack at high speed and get great reward from perfectly railing berms will enjoy the trail feedback from a hardtail, undiluted by rear suspension sag under compression.
With advancements in frame technology and rim width, not to mention larger carcass tyres, hardtails are a lot less taxing on the body that was the case a few years ago. A carefully considered hardtail build can deliver tremendous all-round riding ability, for much less than a dual-suspension mountain bike.
The overall ownership cost of a hardtail is also much reduced, due to the absence of a secondary rear shock and pivots – which can compound running costs. This is especially true for riders who roll most of their miles in extremely muddy or dusty environments, where trail contaminants can ruin bearings and pivots.
Keep scrolling to see Bike Perfect's pick of the best hardtail mountain bikes from cross-country whippets to the truly hardcore.
The best hardtail mountain bikes
Specialized has a proven reputation for spending big on R&D and the new Epic hardtail is evidence that its engineers are never content.
With a frame weight of only 790g, the new Epic is 75g lighter than its predecessor. What makes that achievement even more remarkable, is that the frame is longer and features a larger diameter seat tube – to accommodate a wider array of dropper seatposts.
Stretched out reached makes the Epic more stable when descending and its stays have been spread to accommodate larger 2.3in 29er tyres, which boost climbing traction. The range-topping S-Works version is a remarkable 7.8kg build. Unquestionably the cross-country hardtail race bike to have.
Cannondale hasn't shied away from innovation and almost every area of the Cannondale F-Si World Cup uses unique features to maximise the bike's performance.
Cannondale uses its top-tier BallisTec Hi-MOD Carbon which builds into a frame with a claimed weight of 900g. To reduce fatigue, SAVE micro flex zones are built into the seat tube and Ai Offset rear triangle for impact absorption when standing during descents or seated pedalling. Cannondale uses a proprietary Ai Offset rear end which gives the F-Si a short 427mm chainstay for an agile ride quality without sacrificing tyre clearance or front gearing options.
Cannondale's Lefty fork concept has long been much of an oddity with its single leg design. The new generation Ocho Carbon single crown fork features 100mm of tunable and plush travel and is controlled with a cable lockout. A 55mm offset is part of Cannondale's OutFront steering geometry for stable yet nimble handling characteristics.
With its integrated stem and pronounced top-tube kink ahead of the headtube, the Mondraker has a unique profile.
Although Mondraker was among the first bike brands to champion longer bikes with its forward geometry concept, the Podium does not rank as an exceptionally long frame by 2020 standards. Its reach of 437mm is shorter than the Specialized Epic, but in terms of aero is has an advantage with its IST-Evo integrated stem technology. Without having to accommodate an upper headset cup or steering tube spacers, you save weight with the Mondraker IST-Evo stem, which has a mass of only 128g.
It remains an impressively light bike suited to those who wish to register PRs on then climbs. With a built weight of only 8.9kg, the Mondraker is nothing if not efficient.
Another contemporary carbon hardtail which runs a 27.2mm seat post, Santa Cruz’s Highball might have all the attributes of a lightweight racing machine, but is does not shy away from descents.
Santa Cruz established its reputation with trail and downhill bikes. The company’s engineering focus is biased toward descending but with the Highball it proves that if you wish to race a Californian cross-country frame that isn’t from the big red ‘S’, you have alternatives.
A specific design feature that Santa Cruz has endured with relating to its Highball, is the eccentric bottom bracket, which allows the frame to be run single speed. And for those who wish to add some power miles to their training programme, this single gear adaptability is appealing.
Trail-shredding performance doesn't have to cost the earth, for just a small bump in cost over the best mountain bikes under £1000, we think the Vitus Sentier 29 VRX offers an unbeatable package. In fact, if you're looking for a bike for days tearing up trail centres and local singletrack the Sentier VRX makes it hard to justify spending more money.
Modern trail geometry and 130mm of travel from a Fox 34 Rhythm fork keep the Sentier up to speed on the trail. Shimano brakes bring the bike to a stop using four-pot XT brakes, there is also an XT rear derailleur that leads up an SLX 12-speed drivetrain. The bike is easy to maintain as well with outer cable routing (apart from the dropper) and a threaded bottom bracket shell.
Many companies have embraced the do-everything capabilities of trail hardtails and Kona's Big Honzo has been leading the trail bike category for a long time. To create a bike that can take on anything Kona has used its trail carbon fibre to build a frame that has enough brutish qualities to muscle through the toughest terrain while still light enough to pedal all day.
The Big Honzo's biggest strength is its adaptability. All frames have the same low standover height so bike size can be chosen on reach figures without being stifled by leg length. Kona has designed the Honzo around 27.5+ with enough clearance for a 3-inch tyre but is also compatible with 29er wheels.
While the Big Honzo will eat up most trails with a big grin, if gravity-induced madness is frequently on the menu an angle set can be used to slacken out the 67.5-degree head angle and ISCG05 tabs for a chain guide (remember those).
Hardcore hardtails have always had an almost cult-like following in the UK - chiefly owing to our tight short forest trails, rich dirt jumping history and a build-it-yourself mentality of a few homegrown companies. One of those players is Orange Bikes who has been building hardcore bikes since 1988.
The Orange P7 has seen a huge evolution since its first release, growing from a bike that would have more in common with modern gravel bikes and into a hardtail built for the most demanding trails.
Orange has stuck with tradition and built the P7 from Reynolds 525 for a forgiving twangier ride feel that is attributed to steel frames. A head angle of 65-degrees and 140mm of travel keep the bike tracking straight and in control when the riding gets zesty. The P7 comes with clearance for 29x2.6in or 27.5x3.0in tyres as well as a 27.5 version of the P7.
The Canadian boutique brand has significantly redesigned its downhill-biased hardtail and if you love railing berms and launching jumps, this is the bike for you.
Banshee’s staff include a former Rolls-Royce aviation engineer and, as such, the brand does nothing for the sake of fashion or trend. All its frame engineering has fundamental technical justification. The claim is that the third-generation Paradox rides with the compliance and comfort of a steel frame, while bring the lower mass benefit of aluminium construction.
Beautifully machined stays with structural cut-outs (which allow for lateral flex) are supported by internally ribbed tubing, to guarantee strength.
You’d always expect some uniquely clever technical innovation from the Swiss and BMC’s Team Elite hardtail is an excellent example.
Technically you could classify this bike as a softail, due to the presence of BMC’s micro-travel seat stays. The Team Elite features an oversized seat stay to seat tube junction, and this houses an elastomer damper which adds 15mm of terrain absorption to the rear triangle.
Beyond its appealing ride compliance, the BMC’s geometry also integrates a relatively low stand-over height for a cross-country race-biased hardtail frame. This means that you can get your weight lower and more centred when flicking the bike through switchbacks.
Best hardtail mountain bikes: everything you need to know
The absence of rear suspension has benefits and disadvantages. Your bias in relation to either requires careful consideration, to make the best possible hardtail bike choice.
If you are trying to conquer black-rated descents on a hardtail, then yes, you need a frame that will accommodate the largest possible fork, longest possible dropper post and largest possible rear tyres.
For those riders who are more focussed on fitness, hardtails climb better than dual-suspension bikes because they have less mass and there is no energy loss being converted into suspension movement.
Conversely, they can be a touch more punishing if you attempt to rally through rock gardens and huck enormous doubles.
Without rear-suspension to cushion terrain, frame material and layup becomes an important consideration. Diverse materials and tube sizes will absorb terrain impacts differently, which can either increase or decrease your ride comfort.
An easy way to add more ride comfort to any hardtail, is by increasing its rear tyre size and allowing that additional air-volume in that tyre to act as a marginal suspension intermediary of sorts. To run a larger rear tyre you’ll need wider chain- and seat stay spacing.
Seat tube diameter
Seat tube diameter is a huge influence on general ride comfort, too. If you are seated and rolling along on even terrain, or climbing - a great deal of terrain compliance results from your seat tube’s flexibility. The larger your seat tube diameter is, the harsher the ride quality will be seated on a fixed seatpost. This is the reason why 27.2mm seat tubes have remained in fashion with hardtail mountain bike designers.
This seat tube diameter issue, in as much as it is related to ride comfort, adds complexity to the question of dropper seatpost compatibility. There is a trend towards a minimal seat tube diameter of 30.9mm, due to dropper seatposts becoming more popular, even with weight-obsessed cross-country riders.
Seat tube diameter is a considerable specification decision for any hardtail rider. If you are going to roll big mileage and prefer a fixed seat post to save weight, the compliance of a 27.2mm tube diameter frame is important. Prefer having a more balanced riding experience with some fun on the descents? Then you’d need either a 30.9- or 31.6mm frame to accommodate most of the contemporary dropper seatpost configurations.
Hardtails are rationally better due to an inherent simplicity and lower cost of maintenance, but weight is their currency of appeal and if you are counting grams, the bike of the moment is Specialized’s new Epic. Despite its extreme race weight, Specialized engineers have also managed to add an assortment of geometry features which make the 2020 Epic a credibly confident descender too: slacker head angle and wider rear stays to roll bigger tyres.
Those hardtail loyalists who seek a light bike with winter weather survivability, should consider the Santa Cruz Highball. Its ability to run single speed will dramatically reduce component wear and rider frustration during an intense block of winter training in muddy conditions. It remains one of the very few carbon hardtails which accommodates the suffering of single-speed converts.